Author: Larry Olmsted- Senior Contributor to Forbes
In many ways Las Vegas is better than ever, with accommodations far superior to decades past, a recent explosion of great restaurants and a mind-boggling expansion of the sports and entertainment offerings.
The city’s original romantic or exotic destination appeal was shaped by headliners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley, and It-could-only-happen-in-Vegas oddities like motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel jumping the Caesars Palace fountains on New Year’s Eve (the longest jump he ever attempted, by the way).
It is this era, from the mid-Forties to mid-Seventies, that shaped so much of the perception of Las Vegas, and was popularized in beloved mob movies including The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven (the Sinatra original) and Casino. It is an era that concluded with the corporatization of the city’s casino hotels, ending the rule of organized crime. But it never vanished completely, and visitors inclined to sample a taste of the glamor of what for many was the city’s heyday still have some very interesting and colorful options.
There is probably no single personality more associated with Vegas and its legend then the Chairman of the Board, Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Sinatra’s early style sense would come to define his on-stage persona and ultimately the city of Las Vegas during the four decades he headlined there, beginning in 1951.’Frank wouldn’t go out after dark without a sport jacket on, let alone perform out of a tuxedo,’ says former Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt-Bono. ‘He was the spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous.’”
Sinatra performed here repeatedly over a 43-year period, and it was supposedly in a Vegas watering hole where Sinatra and some buddies, including Humphrey Bogart, were drinking that Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall described the group as a pack of rats, a nickname that stuck with Sinatra and his celebrity comrades (but not Bogart) and lives on to this day. Sinatra and the Rat Pack became Sin City icons, and their presence can still be felt here today in very tangible ways. You can even take in a glimpse of the stars on stage, at least in spirit, in honorific shows such as The Rat Pack Is Back, a tribute production at the Tuscany Suites & Casino or Frankly Frank at the Alexis Park All-Suite Resort.
But my favorite way to reconnect with his signature style is by having dinner at The Golden Steer, one of the city’s bets and oldest steakhouses and his most regular haunt. The place for stars to eat beef since 1958, it is a freestanding spot a block off of Las Vegas Boulevard, “The Strip,” and everyone who is anyone in the past five and a half decades of Vegas history has dined in one of the dark wood and red leather banquettes. Muhammad Ali, Elvis, and Joe DiMaggio all came, but Sinatra came all the time, and had his own booth (number 22, now adorned with a vintage picture of the Rat Pack above it). He had other local favorites, but few still exist, and the Steer was tops. Frequent partner Dean Martin also had a regular booth held here, and both often ate after performances with co-star Sammy Davis, Jr. Many of the hotels they performed at were still segregated, but the group was always welcome at the Steer, so you can enjoy all the Rat Pack history.
But only Sinatra had his own meal.
It’s not on the menu, but you can order his classic to nodding approval from the old school pro waitstaff, and you can even do it while sitting in his booth. Sinatra’s signature meal, enjoyed here many times, was clams casino (very Vegas!), baked with white wine, bacon, diced red and yellow peppers, and breadcrumbs, followed by steak pizzaiola, a New York strip steak topped with sautéed diced tomatoes, garlic and white wine, and finally, bananas Foster. His beverage of choice was famously three fingers of Jack Daniels over two ice cubes.
There are still a handful of other surviving places of the era that claim a Sinatra connection, like the bar at the Golden Gate in Downtown, but the thing I love about the Golden Steer is that in addition to rich history and atmosphere, it is also an excellent restaurant, still passionately family-owned, and always a great choice for steak or seafood lovers.
Another delicious spot closely tied to the Chairman of the Board is the Forbes 4-Star Sinatra at Wynn Resort. Fittingly, Wynn now occupies the site of the Desert Inn, the first venue Sinatra ever played in Vegas. Frank himself never ate here because it is relatively new, but its claim to fame is a partnership with the Sinatra family, including family recipes and amazing memorabilia on display, including his Emmy, his Grammy and even his Oscar for From Here to Eternity. The entire place is a gourmet homage to the man and his famous style, with numerous personal favorites done fine dining style. These include Frank’s Clams Posilipo as a starter, steamed clams with garlic, tomato and oregano, as well Frank’s spaghetti and (red) clam sauce. You can’t go wrong the “Ossobuco My Way,” complete with classic accompaniment saffron risotto Milanese. In general veal t is the star here, and the unusual bone-in veal parmigiana is a standout I can attest to.
Wynn Las Vegas also has a hidden gem bar, the Eastside Lounge, which overlooks the pool with live pianists nightly and is a great choice for pre-dinner drinks. Mariena Mercer Boarini, the hotel’s Master Mixologist, created the “Sinatra Smash,” using Wynn’s own private label Jack Daniels Single Barrel, crème de cassis, muddle fresh blackberries, and vanilla sweet & sour syrup.
The Desert Inn was famous for its golf course, frequented by the Rat Pack, and while it was completely rebuilt for the new resort, Wynn remains the only hotel on the Strip with golf. Modern celebrities from Justin Timberlake to Jimmy Fallon to NFL stars Josh Allen and Tom Brady have taken to the fairways in the Rat Pack’s spiritual footsteps (and I have to humbly admit to being part of Vegas golf history as the very first person ever to birdie the signature waterfall 18th hotel after the current Wynn Golf Club course opened).
But to really relive the golf of the era, head to Las Vegas National, opened as the Stardust Country Club in 1961, and essentially still the same course. Not only did the Rat Pack play here very regularly, but they also often spent nights drinking, singing and playing the clubhouse piano. The course and a house set between the first and eighteenth fairways was also used to shoot Casino. Las Vegas National holds a big place in golf history, having hosted both LPGA and PGA Tour events, with a course record once set by Arnold Palmer, then broken by Tom Kite. But perhaps most notably, it was the site of the breakthrough very first professional win for a promising young golfer named Tiger Woods in 1996. Talk about history!
One of my favorite cultural attractions in the city is the one-of-a-kind Neon Museum, and through its guided tour you can gain a lot of insight into this Golden Age period in the city, and the many now vanished spots preserved only here. The display includes signage from many of the places Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin performed and hung out, such as the Sands, Sahara, and Riviera.
Martin was a known lover of adult beverages and frequented the Peppermill Las Vegas and Fireside Lounge, which opened towards the end of the period in question, 1972, but has had a big and lasting impact. It exudes the classic Vegas ambiance and because of this has been featured in many movies and television shows, most famously Martin Scorsese’s Casino. According to the Las Vegas Journal Review, Anthony Spilotro and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the respective inspirations for the characters played by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in the film, were real life Peppermill regulars. It was also in the Cotton Club, Showgirls, CSI Vegas, multiple music videos, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
The place is an odd combo of 24-hour diner style coffee shop with huge menu and a stuck in time kitschy, neon colorful, Seventies cocktail lounge that serves classics like a 64-ounce Scorpion Bowl. The Peppermill is especially famous for its Bloody Mary’s and has long been a popular spot for day drinking. It’s full of breakfast eaters and power drinkers at all hours, and it is very, very Vegas. Magician and frequent Vegas performer Penn Jillette had a booth from the restaurant recreated in his home. Other regulars included Jerry Lewis, Godfather star James Caan, and the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Only Elvis rivals Sinatra for Vegas icon status, but while both have local roads named after them, let’s face it, no one goes to a Vegas wedding chapel to get married by a Sinatra impersonator. In a premonition of this trend, Presley’s 1964 hit film Viva Las Vegas featured The Little Church of the West, the oldest chapel in the city, which you can still visit, along with the Elvis-themed Graceland Chapel, opened in 1970. The story behind his extended “residencies” here - long before anyone had coined the term residency - as well as triumphant comeback - were recently popularized in last year’s hit, Elvis, nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Between 1969 and 1976 Elvis performed 636 sold out shows at the International Hotel, now the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. While many famed Sinatra venues were torn down and replaced with new properties, the International Theater is still here, and every July hosts the three-day King of Las Vegas Festival (July 7-9, 2023) with award-winning Elvis tribute artists from around the world. The Westgate is also home to one overlooked retro Vegas attraction, a historic Elvis display anchored by a commemorative bronze statue. And according to some - including Mr. Vegas, Wayne Newton - the hotel is still haunted by Elvis (as reported by KTNV News). As reported in this story by award-winning radio personality and author Michael Patrick Shiels, who went deep into Elvis’ Westgate history, the hotel is designing a tour for fans to be led by one of the King’s bodyguards that will visit the theater and Elvis’ longtime suite on the 30th floor. Like Sinatra, Elvis ranks two tribute shows, All Shook Up at the Alexis Park (also home to Frankly Frank) and Spirit of the King at the 4 Queens.
While Elvis went through many style phases, Vegas Elvis is known best for his white jumpsuit, and so is another period legend, Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, the most famous stuntman in history. The story goes that Knievel came to town to see a prize fight at Caesars Palace, laid his eyes on the dramatic fountains outside the entrance, and decided he just had to jump them on a motorcycle. At 141 feet it was his longest such jump, and he attempted it on New Year’s Eve 1967. While he cleared the fountains, he didn’t quite have room for the landing, and in the ensuing crash suffered multiple injuries and a monthlong coma. Interestingly, despite the outcome, Knievel returned happily to the scene more than 30 years later to get married on a platform in the Fountains. In 1989, his son Robbie Knievel successfully pulled off the jump.
The Fountains are still there, but the driveway has changed to the point where it is hard to appreciate the stunt. To really dive into the legendary showman’s Vegas-ness, you have to go Fremont Street in to Old Downtown Vegas, now home to Evel Pie, a pizzeria by one of his other son’s, Kelly. In addition to New York style pizza and adult beverages, it claims to be home to the world’s second largest collection of Knievel memorabilia, including his signature pinball machine, once a staple of arcades nationwide. The joint’s motto is Live Fast, Ride Hard, Eat Pizza.
Only in Vegas.